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Make No Exceptions

On Monday I emailed my friend Melissa about getting together for lunch. I wrote, “I can get together any day except Friday.” She wrote back, “Great! I’ll come to your office on Friday.”

A while ago, I was asked to have a teleconference with several doctors. I emailed Chris, the coordinator: “I can be available any time except Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon.” She responded, “Fine. Let’s meet Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock.”

What went wrong? It wasn’t that these people did not really want to meet with me. It was that I made “exceptions.” By using the word except, I emphasized what I could not do–not what I could do. They read what I wrote–just not all of it. Although my statements were clear, they were not structured in a way that my readers could quickly and correctly take in the information. Melissa focused on the word Friday. Chris read simply “Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon.”

Now I have learned my lesson. I will not make exceptions! The next time I invite Melissa to lunch I will write, “I am available Monday through Thursday.” To Chris, I would write, “Here are the days I can meet: Monday, Thursday, and Friday. I can also meet Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.” Although I cannot guarantee that we will be able to arrange our calendars, at least I will increase our odds of success.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

7 comments on “Make No Exceptions”

  • I love that we do this–I have a quote on my desk that reminds me–“Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want.” The theory is that the universe hears any negative statement the same as a positive and will reinforce whatever the subject of your thought is so we should focus on the positive. Your idea of exception must work the same way ;)-the mind looks for the positive, not the negative. Thanks for the reminder–I’ve had the same thing happen and have just thought people weren’t paying attention. Maybe it was me not being clear enough….

  • I love that quote Mary.

    I think it’s more that people just don’t pay attention…they skim. So when they see Tuesday morning in the message, they think you’re suggesting to meet Tuesday morning.

    Attention to detail has gone downhill in the days of email overload.

  • While I agree it is incumbent on us to write clearly, surely it is also incumbent on the reader to read the entire message properly.

    Skimming is fine for large documents when all you want is the ‘flavour’ of the message, but not when it comes to single sentence emails.

    By stating the exception, you were being succinct – something I would personally value in these days of “email overload”.

    Is it really too much to ask that people actually read what we write?

  • Chris, it’s frustrating, isn’t it? Yet I continue to find evidence that people do not read email carefully. As a consultant-teacher who serves clients, I am not in a position to hold them accountable. Therefore, I do whatever it takes to communicate successfully.

    Like you, I thought stating the exception was being succinct, but since it does not seem to work, I will use the wordier, clearer alternative.

    Whether our documents are short or long, our readers are skimming–or reading very quickly. The challenge for us as writers is to adapt to their style of accessing information.

  • When we were teaching our oldest daughter Tish to ride bike, we learned quickly that we needed to remind her to focus on where she wanted to go, and not on what she wanted to avoid. When she was in a wide open area, she was fine, but when she was near obstacles, Tish had an unfortunate tendency to focus her attention on the obstacles (and I’m sure many other kids have it as well). And when you focus on it, you tend to head towards it, whether you want to or not.

    I’ve seen this tendency born out so often in life, that I’ve tried to make it a personal writing rule to focus my message on what I want people to do, not on what I want them to avoid. I’ve done a lot of technical writing in my career, and it seems like a lot of what I’ve seen is written in “Don’t do this, Don’t do that” phrases, rather than “Be sure you do this, and do that.”

  • Roy, thanks for the very apt story–and for changing “born” to “borne.” Both posts made me smile.

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